Gratitude into Action

Gratitude into Action

I almost died. Be clear that I do not mean that something was so funny that I almost died laughing. I mean it literally: the functioning of my organism almost stopped suddenly.

Well, to be even more specific, let’s say that I was very scared. My heart rate shot up, my body eventually relaxed to catch my breath, and then shivers and shaking went through my body as I adjusted to the surge of chemicals like adrenalin.

Can you relate to this? Have you even experienced something similar?

I’ll tell you exactly what happened a little later. Before that, I am inviting you to use your own imagination and intelligence… rather than bias you with the particular details of my own history of a particular case of almost dying- or being suddenly exposed to the possibility of dying… like “ah, I notice that I could have just been killed. How interesting!”

So, you personally would have at least witnessed someone who gets “scared to death,” right? Sure, but not just startled- I mean really clear that their physical organism is temporary, conditional, something that begins and then ends, something that belongs to the earth itself, not to our linguistic ideas, not to our ego or our family or our government, but that ultimately belongs ONLY to God, if you like that word.

Again, I do not mean God as a particular linguistic ideal either, like loving or wise or old and white-bearded like Santa Zeus. No, I mean God as the indescribable, the one word that we know is beyond regular words, the ineffable, the mysterious, the great unknown that is so far beyond our capacity for language that we can conceptually accept only that it is absolutely beyond our understanding, beyond “what we know that we don’t know.” We have no idea what the word God means, and, in the one exceptional case of this particular word, we actually might just even admit it!

Hebrew mystics have four letters for it, with each letter representing a distinct idea built in to the sequence of four related ideas, but they consider that sequence of letters to be a sacred encoding which is not to be said out loud. The Taoists even directly say this: “the Tao that can be spoken of is not the Tao.”

One cannot meaningfully declare one’s definitions of it. If one defines it with other words, that is not it. I mean by the word God this: THE fundamental linguistic unit that points to the conditionality and inherent emptiness of all other units of language.

Letters and alphabets begin and end (like in the history of a particular species or culture). Formations of an individual word begin and end- like the words “internet” or “blog” or “quark” are rather new while an ancient language that is known to have existed may now be otherwise forgotten, like an extinct species that is now just a distant legend or a big rack of dinosaur bones in a museum.

So, words come and go, and the meanings of words can change. The use and function of a particular word formation is thus ENTIRELY contextual (not inherent).

For instance, the sound of the word “right” means three distinct things. Right is the opposite of left. Right is also the opposite of wrong. Right is even a legal category distinct from privilege or any act that is prohibited or punished (as in some act that is criminalized by law: by the drafting, proposal, adoption, declaration and then the evolving administering of some new law or treaty or amendment or constitution).

However, to someone who does not know the English language, the sound of the word “right” is just a meaningless sound. Ask your pets. Even human infants do not know right from left. We either learn or else we still don’t know, and then we may go senile and forget.

Even the shapes of the letters forming the word “right” are just shapes. Each letter is just a shape. The G and the H do not even have a sound in that word, yet without those silent letters, “rit” is just not spelling it “write.”

So, we can easily demonstrate physically which is “right” and which is left, but there is nothing sacred about those terms. In sailing, we might use the terms “port” and “starboard” to refer to the same or similar distinctions. In other language or contexts, we use other sounds or words or letters or alphabets or encodings.

But the word “God” is not like all these words that are contextual, that is, inherently meaningless. God is not the opposite of the Devil either. I do not mean gods like the archetypical psychological distinctions of mythological astrology. I mean like what the Chinese call the Tao.

If we had to use a relative term of description to distinguish the term God, we might say that the word God is the opposite of all other words. It’s not like the others at all. Given that, to say anything, we would be limited to all those other words that are like that one, “God is not like those” is really about all we could say.

God is just what “we don’t know that we don’t know.” (I borrow that particular phrasing from

English: Face portion of a casual photo at a m...

Werner Erhad - Image via Wikipedia

Wittgenstein… which Werner Erhard and then Landmark Education borrowed in turn- though none of them called it God or anything else, as far as I know.) Other than “we can’t describe it in words,” we obviously can’t say much about it, can we?

So, as I said before, I almost died. Here is what actually happened.

Back in the days of elementary school, Johnny and I were both crammed in to the front passenger seat of his mom’s car. I was sitting next to the door and Johnny was on my left (or, for you boaters, portside of me).

Johnny and I were in our dark blue cub scout uniforms and we were probably late for a cub scout meeting. She was taking a sharp left turn when I found out that I had not closed the passenger door all the way. It may have even been a car in which the door did not actually stay closed. Cars can eventually fall apart, too, you know!

So she’s turning the car left and I’m flying out of the open car door to the right (starboard). Johnny grabs my left hand and then I look down for one of those eternal moments at the hard black pavement speeding by me just a few feet under the soft tissue of my face.

So, maybe I did not quite “almost die.” But I did almost fall out of the car. I was as scared as I could ever recall being as of that time in my life- so not just scared of heights and shakily climbing back down the ladder from the diving board of the “high dive.”

This was not just a recognition of “I’m scared that I could have been hurt.” This was “there were cars and trucks coming from the opposite direction. I could have been run over and smashed like the flattened little animals on suburban and rural roadways everywhere. Like the insects on a car’s windshield. Like my body could have been creamed- cremated without even using a hot furnace.”

Oh yeah, I was definitely a little boy. Those are the kinds of descriptions that little boys can give, yes, even while they are poking holes in antbeds and mindlessly ripping leaves off of trees and tearing them to shreds… perhaps not unlike the legless body of a grasshopper over here and a neat stack of legs over here.

“Yes, I stacked the legs here. What do you think they just stacked themselves up like that? See how neatly I stacked them! Guilty? Why would I ever feel guilty about ripping the legs off of the grasshopper? After all, this is a heroic act. I did not feel guilty about destroying the nest of the ants, but since I had done that and they were already running all over the place, I thought that I might generously feed them this grasshopper, and, you see, grasshoppers are otherwise rather uncooperative with the entire prospect of being fed alive to ants, so you can see that the legs being attached to the grasshopper simply did not fit with my program for being generous to the ants. They just had to go. I suppose I can feed them top the ants later as well….”

By the way, if you do not think that your little boys have ever done any of those kinds of things (or your husband or father when they were little), well, you could be quite wrong. By the way, yes, some men will lie to you just to keep you from going into hysterics.

Then they may casually continue carving up the turkey and tell their urban-raised grandkids fabulous stories about the turkey farms where the turkeys are raised from seeds, transplanted as saplings, and, then in the prime of their lives, volunteer to join in for an (of course) entirely bloodless harvest… in which the edible part of the turkey plant is severed from the roots. If you haven’t heard this story before, that may simply be because I personally am not your grandfather…. 😉

Ah yes: Thanksgiving- that is a holiday that was started by the Native Americans and then “borrowed” from them, you know, kind of like the rest of their culture (and continent). People may not like to admit it, but reality can be harsh. While you’re being grateful for food and family and a solid building you call home, I’m not going to ask you to remember the turkeys that gave their lives or the people who called this land their home several hundred years ago. That kind of sentimental musing is pretty-well covered in public schools already, right? Kids make turkey drawings from outlines of their hands. I did it, too. Yes, it is STILL cute and yes of course your child is still the most amazing artist in human history.

That’s all fine! You are quite welcome to be all gushing with sentimentality- go for it- but that is not what is there for me to say right now.

Life is fragile. It can end in a split second. The key word in the sentence “I almost died” is… almost.

The physical body is temporary. In fact, it is changing all the time. Just ask a teenager that is halfway through the doorway of physical maturity. Just ask some elderly person that you know as someone who used to be able to walk, but now they do not even remember that they could walk.

The physical body is changing all the time. Just spend two hours with a newborn- but make that second hour a week later than the first- and you may find that a lot can change in a week (or a month or a year or a decade or a century).

Then, to top it all off, just spend an entire minute with a grieving parent who has just been informed that their school-aged child… has just died surprisingly, like in a traffic collision in which the child flew out of the passenger seat right into the path of the school bus that you were driving. Oh, and, if you are really open to experiencing heart-opening gratitude for the fragility of life, be the one to tell them the news.

Now I could end the sharing here and it would be wonderful- at least wonderful that the sequence of gruesome stories are over- right? However, there is a reason that I began this essay which I have not revealed yet and I am going to mention it soon and not just briefly. (No, it does not involve blood. That would be gross!)

So, I thought of the title “Gratitude into Action” because of a specific interest in a particular type of action. Yes, it happens to be Thanksgiving, but if you did not already know, I am not especially sentimental about it. I picked that title because some readers might be in the mode of focusing on gratitude.

Great. So am I.

But I did say “into action.” And I did have a specific category of action in mind, and I’ll tell you what action in a bit, but first a little re-cap of this essay so far.

First, I thought of the words “I almost died” before I thought of the particular incident. Next, I was going to share with you an incident from my adulthood, but then I chose to use an incident involving me as a child. (Why? Well, this story just seemed like it would be a lot of fun to tell!)

So, by being confronted with the immediate possibility of dying as a young boy, I was suddenly grateful for life anew. Can you get that? The whole section up to now has simply been so that you can really get that by now, as we shift attention toward an obvious action that can naturally follow such a breakthrough in gratitude. The obvious action is the one that happens automatically even without anyone suggesting it.

Yes, as a young boy, I almost fell out of a moving car. Of course, to say that I almost died is pretty dramatic.

I was merely mortally frightened, which is rather different from being mortally wounded and having my parents pacing the floor of the hospital emergency room, waiting to hear the next bit of news from the paramedics and so on: “Is he going to make it or not?” No, it wasn’t that close to dying, but I wanted you the reader to be able to have a sense of the fear of that little boy (me) without it being too unnerving (and then, for my own amusement if not yours as well, I eventually moved on to what little boys may sometimes do to grasshoppers…).

So, in that event of almost falling out of a moving car, I was not even physically injured at all (thank you, Johnny Elam). By the way, no, we were not wearing seatbelts.

Guess what, though? For at least the next few weeks, if you had seen me, you might have seen a little boy so attentive to buckling his seatbelt that he would be buckled in before he would even close the car door. “Ah, it’s just a little rain and wind. This will help remind you not to leave papers stacked on the backseat of the car where they can blow all over the place, mom! But at least I’m safely buckled, huh?”

So, I was going to say that Johnny was grateful for me, and that is why he grabbed me and slowly reeled me back in to the car. But that spontaneous digression I just took about me being suddenly grateful for life anew- and thus automatically attentive to wearing seatbelts- that is an even better fit with where I was already going.

Here it is. In the last several years, I have experienced a foreclosure of a home. I’ve also been repeatedly financially destitute- like more than just once or twice- in the last seven years. I’ve even spent a little time in jail (which can be both be a result of and a cause of financial trouble).

In recent years, I’ve also spent a lot of time working in a law office, ironically, that specializes in helping people who are experiencing financial challenges to file bankruptcy. Starting in mid-2002 (long before working with the law firm), I also started researching financial trends, including global trends in the lending markets. As time went on, I focused more and more on the specific financial patterns of the middle class of the US in the last few decades- as well as the psychology behind those trends of activity. But, for a moment, let’s ignore the long-term and just focus on 2008.

Some people experienced quite a startle financially in 2008. Companies that had been extremely unstable for quite a while were recognized by the masses to be unstable upon the publicizing of those companies filing bankruptcy or or least nearing bankruptcy: yes US auto giants, but also mainstream financial institutions including Merrill Lynch, Wachovia, Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac, IndyMac, Countrywide, Bear Stearns, Washington Mutual, and even the world’s largest insurance company, a US company that many in the US were not familiar with: AIG.

By the way, in my experience, most investors in the US were not only oblivious to the reality of the financial instability of those mainstream financial institutions, such that they were actually surprised by the announcement that those companies were near bankruptcy- kind of like driving at night without headlights or gambling at poker without looking at the cards- but most Americans are generally oblivious to the entire rest of the world. That is why many Americans do not know AIG even though it was the biggest insurance company in the world (as well as a US company).

The governments of places like Iceland almost went bankrupt in 2008, but how many Americans care about that? The financial crisis is all over Europe, too – very severe in places as far away as the UK and Japan, “but what does that have to do with me personally?”

Systemic (global) issues can have personal implications even before a person finds out about them. Yet, many people seem to actually think that when they found out that mainstream financial institutions were unstable… is basically when the instability started. That is like thinking that when the first raindrop hits you, that is when the clouds started to gather.

But you can see the clouds in advance of the rain actually falling- if you only would look- right? People simply have neglected to look at the stability of various mainstream financial trends- nationally and globally. Those who have looked (and are competent to interpret the simplest data) have seen for years what is coming. Those who have not looked, in contrast, have lately been very surprised- many quite unpleasantly.

In the US, college professors from the most respected institutions in the Ivy League (Harvard, Princeton, Yale, etc…) have been publishing books on the culminating of global financial instability for years (such as Elizabeth Warren, Robert Shiller, and Paul Krugman). Private researchers have been also warning about it for years or even decades (including Robert Prechter, Jim Shepherd, and myself).

Most investors, however, have presumed that their own abundance and prosperity would be safe… to such an extent that they did not look at the cards before placing their bets (bids) on aggressive speculation in real estate. But that is just the start of what I mean by oblivious.

Even people who have been directly warned of what is easily predictable have failed to invest in responsible research of “due diligence” and taking precautions- that is, they have invested in losing huge amounts of prosperity, they have gambled against very unfavorable odds and then been surprised upon losing it… for they had simply presumed that certain investing strategies that did well in the 1990s for instance would do well, what… forever? People in places that have not had the severe real estate declines (yet!) of Phoenix or Las Vegas seem to simply dismiss the idea that it could happen to them personally. I call that denial. That is exactly what I witnessed in Arizona for the last 7 years as I have warned handfuls and then dozens and then hundreds of people about the particular instability of real estate markets dependent on “easy lending.”

In Phoenix, Arizona, where I happen to be at the moment, many real estate speculators gambled big on aggressive real estate borrowing in recent years- even having been directly warned! Subsequently, many have already lost half of the value of their home, dropping the home values far below the amount owed on the home, which exposes them to bankruptcy and a loss of most or all of their assets (including many retirement accounts). Many of those retirement accounts lost up to half of their value with the stock market decline across 2008. That means that by entering huge debts not covered by the realistic long-term value of the home, then failing to sell stock that were severely over-priced, many people who were new millionaires have gambled away their entire net worth- such as by partnering ridiculous real estate gambling with over-confident stock investing. How often I have found that the two go together: obliviousness to risk in stocks and real estate.

But gold will do great right? Oh, here come the people comparing recent events to the late 1970s, again completely oblivious in their abject denial of the simple realities pointed to for years by researchers who have the remarkable distinction of… accuracy! But why consider those folks when there are people on TV pointing to the light at the end of the tunnel and saying “it simply could not be a train. In fact, there is obviously no such thing as a train.”

So, I’ve gone on for a bit now about financial instability and how people tend to be oblivious to risk and then, when they find out about the historic risk by the public announcement of the bankruptcy of the next mainstream institution or government, much of the middle class then just wants to blame someone else for the results of their own investing strategies. Many want some other government to come and rescue that other collapsing government program. They do NOT want to make any personal adjustments. After all, they are patriotic folks worshiping politicians and constitutions and words (and neglecting the simple truth of the God beyond all other words).

Taking responsibility and making personal adjustment would be ridiculous, right? These “surprised” investment gamblers are like pregnant women who act mystified when “suddenly” their water breaks. “Who knew? I was confident that this company was doing fine, and then they filed bankruptcy. Who is to BLAME for this shocking development… which, by the way, was obviously unpredictable (and which I may have been explicitly warned about for several years now)?”

So, kids, wear your seatbelts. Adults, do not sit two kids in the front seat, especially if you are late and inclined to take sharp turns. Close the doors securely and lock them.

Investors, get in contact with someone competent to review the stability of your finances- not by virtue of a TV show or a government license, but by virtue of clear competence as in a long, verifiable track record of accuracy in regard to identifying risk and opportunity well in advance of the majority of the mainstream. Also, do not just stop at someone competent in forecasting, but invest in the services of those familiar with the specific ways that you can put your gratitude for your financial abundance into practical ACTION.

For instance, you can begin by sheltering your finances from predictable market developments, reducing exposure or totally diversifying out of de-stabilizing markets like real estate, commercial commodities, and most stocks. Instead of being unpleasantly surprised, benefit from those same predictable market developments. For those that would benefit from it, shelter your finances from the default exposure to tax and court liability by using the most conservative protections built in to those systems. For those valuing debt relief, explore conservative negotiation options, perhaps including the possibility of filing bankruptcy- not as an imperative, but as a precaution- and just explore it. (By the way, as I have been explicitly telling folks for years, as the lending markets further de-stabilize, having a good credit score may not matter as much when there are “suddenly and surprisingly” not any lenders left to lend.)

So, sure, be grateful for your food today and every day, for your family and friends today and everyday, and for the solid buildings in which you dwell, and certainly for cars and the seatbelts within them. Just remember that the clouds have also gathered. The winds have started to blow. Many mainstream financial institutions that were already unstable were recognized by you to be unstable as of 2008… the winds blew down the houses made of straw cards built on sand. (I do like to mix my metaphors, don’t I: the story of the three little pigs with the house of straw, plus a house of cards, plus the scriptural reference of building on foundations of sand or of rock.)

I’m rather light-hearted about it, yes. And, it is quite serious. Many people are about to have their houses taken from them, not by high winds or floodwaters of New Orleans, but by their own investment choices. And then they will be in the rain. And they will complain and blame and some will call for rescue. All I am asking you is if you are willing to be ones of the ones in a position to help… at least to help a few of them.

Those who are deeply mortgaged into real estate, won’t be soon… either one way or the other. Which do you choose: whether you will be dry or wet when the thunderstorm breaks, when even the people who only worship words will be faced with the God of all words? We can wait until then to know God speechlessly, or just go ahead right now. Be grateful for every single aspect of your life… for so long as you shall live… starting as soon as you choose to stop doing anything else.

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